Last September, I wrote about how, even as a new student, I knew that this year at Brown was destined to be different. Seven months later, I feel confident that my prediction was correct, although it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what made this year unique. As a first-year student, there is no control, no baseline from which to judge an experience we know is abnormal in too many ways to count. But my position is just as strange as that of the seniors who became 22.5-ers overnight, or of sophomores who have been on campus for four semesters without an extended break. Even though I wasn’t present for all of it, I can feel the impact of the liminal time of the pandemic that separates the before from the now.
Maybe that’s why I still find myself searching for something solid to land on through it all, something that can encapsulate what it means to be a student here, what it means to be a part of Brown right now. The answers that come to me first are simple: brown rice pilaf at the Sharpe Refectory, the warm spot right behind the sliding doors of Page-Robinson Hall and the picnic blankets laid out over the Main Green when the sun is out. Being at Brown means knowing these things and their places in our lives. But, still, I wonder if there is something more intrinsic, something universal that we can lay claim to.
It’s hard to feel like I’m at all qualified to answer. With only a month left in my first year at Brown, I still find myself confronted with surprises at every turn. April comes around and I watch the trees outside of Sayles Hall, the Rockefeller Library and my dorm window burst into beautiful, pink blossoms. I find daffodils popping up in spots I never knew their bulbs existed and rabbits cutting across my path back to my dorm at night. It’s all a humbling reminder that the spaces I thought I knew so well by now are still new to me in many ways. Maybe that’s something to hold onto: the way the familiar always manages to change on you.
Of course, there are plenty of forces changing what it means to be a student right now. The pandemic continues to shape our academic and social lives. Over the span of just over a year , we’ve swung from in-person classes to virtual lectures and back again, from mandatory testing to optional masking and from strict social distancing to packed libraries and classrooms. Beyond COVID, a full-on war in Europe, a series of increasingly dire reports on climate change and a continual divisiveness in American politics have all become the unsettling background of day-to-day life on campus. To go to class amid international panic sometimes feels impossible. Other times it feels like the only thing I’m capable of. But in my courses here about gender and mythology and environmental science, I haven’t found an escape from the events going on beyond campus. Instead, I’ve talked about how the continued debate over Roe v. Wade reflects the interests of a legal system centered around the male body, or what the current geopolitics of Ukraine could signify for the future of green energy industries and climate change. Connecting course content to its real world implications is hardly unique to Brown’s curriculum. But here, grappling with the turbulence of recent real-world events feels like the heart of my education rather than a side feature.
Brown also continues to assert itself as an institution that values freedom and the pursuit of the unexpected at a time when the classic liberal arts education is facing a serious reckoning. A growing culture of pre-professionalism at other institutions stresses building marketable skills for our future careers over the more fluid and personalized approach to education that the open curriculum embodies. As easy as it is to poke fun at the overemphasis on the open curriculum in Brown’s marketing, there is some truth to the idea that its philosophy is central to a Brown experience, during the pandemic or otherwise. Brown defines its mission (on its “About” page) as cultivating “student-centered learning and deep sense of purpose.” On paper, these concepts can feel flat and abstract. But over just a few semesters, I’ve met countless individuals who inspire me with the depth and surprising directions of their passion — a sense of purpose that feels entirely their own.
Still, there’s more to being a student here than what I witness in the classroom. Every time I become part of the crowd flowing down Brown Street or the chain of people holding the door for each other as we exit the Ratty, I am reminded of how much we share, for better or worse: homework assignments, meals, dorm bathrooms, pleasure at a sunny day and physical space. This sense of collectivity also manifests as solidarity in face of the things that are difficult or imperfect: chaotic housing assignments, long hours spent in the library and questions of what it means to cultivate community in spaces tied to historic injustices. For as much as individuality is emphasized on campus, there is also a sense of responsibility for the collective that has surprised me with its intensity.
Maybe all of this, these moments and patterns, are too obvious to be worth reflecting on. And maybe there’s not a single common perspective we can truly say everyone at Brown shares. But it feels important to name those experiences anyway, to not take anything for granted in light of all we’ve gone through in the last few years. When I’m sitting out in the sun with a Blue Room latte or listening to my professor lecture in person, I feel acutely aware of just how precious all of it is. This year has left me continually surprised with myself, exposed to ideas with tangible significance and surrounded by people who inspire me and remind me that I am part of something much larger than myself. But in the middle of such a chaotic year, I’ve learned that it’s still better to live in the present. As I move further into that present at Brown, I finally feel able to release the need to know what’s around the corner. I now know better than to try and imagine what the rest of my time at Brown will be like, but I can't imagine having begun it any other way.
Alissa Simon ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.